OCTOBER 2, 2020
FUTURE MEDAL OF FREEDOM recipient Rush Limbaugh told listeners in 2017 of an important name change. For almost 30 years, he had called his show the Rush Limbaugh Institute for Advanced Conservative Studies. Now, it was time for an “upgrade.” His most loyal listeners — subscribers to the Rush 24/7 service — could receive a circular car magnet emblazoned with the new name: Rush Limbaugh Institute for Advanced Anti-Leftist Studies.
The name change was revealing, even if it didn’t signal a meaningful rhetorical or ideological shift. In truth, Limbaugh’s whole career has been devoted to anti-leftism. The precise vocabulary he uses to label his antagonists has been fluid — he makes little distinction among “liberal,” “progressive,” and “left.” But no matter what issue or controversy he’s taken on, the kind of political common sense he promotes centers on recognizing his opponents as a specific type of enemy: they are left-leaning elites, or those favored and emboldened by elites, who supposedly look down upon his audience.
Since the national launch of his radio program in 1988, Limbaugh helped to reshape the US news landscape. Limbaugh’s stunning success — commercially and in terms of the political capital he quickly accrued — ignited a new era of right-wing news in the United States. Perhaps, a conservative news industry would have inevitably started to grow around that time: AM radio was turning to talk as music had migrated to FM, and new media formats were opening more space for niche news providers. In 1987, the Federal Communications Commission ended the Fairness Doctrine, which had called on broadcasters to present different viewpoints on controversial issues. Still it was Limbaugh, with less than a year of college education and little connection to organized conservative movements, who catalyzed the explosive growth of new types of conservative media. By the late 1990s, a sprawling network of conservative media had firmly taken root across radio, cable television, and the web, gaining more popular influence than any other type of conservative institution — even more than right-wing think tanks, more than official apparatuses of Republican Party, and perhaps even more than evangelical churches.
Limbaugh and the rising stars he inspired would have far more reach than anything like the National Review or conservative radio commentators of the post–World War II period. Unlike most of their postwar predecessors, who relied on the largesse of extremely wealthy donors, the new wave of conservative programming was profitable from a commercial perspective. Profit, rather than patronage, would be the economic base. Limbaugh popularized a novel concoction in terms of style, fusing a cross-class audience — though largely white and heavily male — as he spoke to different grievances and offered the pleasures of gleeful spite.
Limbaugh set a template for how conservatives could tell a story about public life that that could thrill a certain audience. He was able to present politics to his audience not as something they should be interested in, but as a genre just as riveting and emotionally compelling as any form of entertainment. Key to this aesthetic appeal was finding an overarching story line with a villain. More than anything, Limbaugh brought his listeners together by vividly evoking a common enemy — liberalism and the left. As Limbaugh was rising, the Cold War was ending. While sometimes forgotten today, anticommunism had been a key pillar of right-wing discourses through the Cold War. But the menacing image of communism’s “nightmare in red” was losing its capacity to spook. Limbaugh found a new target. He didn’t invent the stereotypes of the sneering liberals and leftists he would deploy day after day. But his success settled any remaining question about what kind of foe the right could use to rile the level of passion that had infused anticommunist crusades. What Limbaugh’s liberals and leftists lacked in their capacity to execute international conspiracy, they made up in the stinging personal affront of their smugness and their grip on culture.
Limbaugh always wanted to remind his fans they were the ones whose “most heartfelt convictions have been dismissed, scorned, and made fun of by the mainstream media” and liberals. He invited them into a self-affirming club where they could see themselves as the rebels and ironists disturbing the supposedly fragile and conformist culture of liberalism. Led by Limbaugh with “one half his brain tied behind his back,” the show transported listeners into a narrative universe where their team could outwit the know-it-all liberals who thought they were so much smarter and better. Then, as liberal critics wailed that Limbaugh was a bigot and ravaged him with insults, his listeners (“dittoheads”) could see themselves receiving these blows. Limbaugh told them they should. According to an account Limbaugh offers in his first book, when a small barbeque restaurant threatened one of the first advertising boycotts of his show (because he used the term “feminazi”), he asked listeners not to avoid that restaurant. Rather, he told them flood it and tell the owner why they were there.
Limbaugh pioneered many of the styles and aesthetic tendencies that would be embraced by a later generation of right-wing meme warriors and online provocateurs. Limbaugh’s influence was not so much about ideology; almost no one views him as a leading conservative thinker. His innovations were in setting a tone and rhapsodically elevating a conservative identity sutured to the image of embattled rebellion. He became the comic bard of “the silent majority.” Limbaugh disavowed labels such as journalist or political commentator, proclaiming himself an “entertainer.” This kept any lines between his opinions and his jokes blurred. He created an insider jargon that built a solidarity among fans and exacerbated their sense of being misunderstood and misrecognized by outside critics. And he milked the dynamics of outrage through performatively defying “politically correct” culture, which he warned was trying to vilify ordinary Americans and smoother their freedom and authenticity.
Limbaugh is no longer the hulking epicenter of the conservative media world. Yet, Ben Shapiro recently proclaimed on Twitter: “Rush’s impact on the conservative movement can’t be overstated — nearly every conservative of my generation grew up listening to him — and that impact will be felt for decades to come.” His legacy has not only left an indelible imprint on all of today’s conservative media. It’s also helped shape, to borrow a phrase from the late culture scholar Raymond Williams, the structure of feeling pervading the conservative movement over the past several decades. All of today’s leading figures from the world of conservative media have taken to heart Limbaugh’s teachings in Advanced Anti-Leftist Studies. But few critics have given anti-leftism a careful analysis. It’s almost too obvious that conservative media disparage progressives and leftists, often in hyperbolic forms that sometimes commingle with racist and other stereotypes. The ubiquity of anti-leftism makes it harder to see the forest for the trees. It’s easy for critics to miss the centrality of anti-leftism in mobilizing conservative energies. The emotional power of the stories the right has been telling about the left has been overlooked.
In February 2017, I was starting a new phase of a research project analyzing the contemporary conservative news landscape. I began interviewing people who turned to Limbaugh and other right-leaning outlets, including Fox News, Breitbart, and The Drudge Report, for much of their news. Not sure exactly what I was looking for, I wanted to explore what kinds of emotion came into play for my interviewees as they tuned into news, chose their sources and stories, and shared or talked about news and politics with each other. Soon, I noticed that almost everyone I was interviewing wanted to bring one topic to the forefront of many of these conservations. They wanted to talk about the nastiness of the left.
Just a few weeks after Trump’s inauguration, I met with two white women, who I’ll call Teresa and Samantha because of institutional review board guidelines. Both were mothers in their mid-40s, living in a Philadelphia exurb. Near the start of our conversation, Teresa told me that listening to mainstream news was “sometimes hard to bear.” Samantha felt that, too. I asked for details to flesh this out. Teresa started breaking it down, telling me she had once been naïve about news. As a child, she’d listened to news headlines on the radio while riding in her father’s car. At the time she had thought, “What they said was true. It’s the news. They’re just giving you the facts. There’s no, you know, personal, there’s no bias.” But the 2000 election was a turning point for her. Her faith in the good intentions of journalists took a nosedive. In particular, she remembered watching one television anchor as things started looking better for George W. Bush. According to Teresa, the anchor grew sour and changed “her attitude, demeanor, her appearance.” The anchor was clearly irritated and saw Bush as someone beneath the dignity of the presidency. Teresa told me, “You’re entitled to however you feel — whether you’re excited, ecstatic, or devastated,” but she was disgusted that reporters betrayed their claim to “just give me the facts.”
We talked more, and it became clear that what resonated most for both women in Trump’s accusations of “fake news.” Similar to what I’d find in later interviews as well, the beef Teresa and Samantha had with mainstream news was not that reporters simply lied. Rather, they saw mainstream news as “fake,” meaning “inauthentic.” Reporters pretended to be fair and balanced; in reality, they had it out for conservatives.
What irked both Teresa and Samantha the most was that the media — relentlessly and falsely in their view — portrayed Donald Trump and Republicans as bigots and bad people. However, as Teresa put, “the hate” coming from liberals and the left was being covered up. I asked for more details. That’s when Samantha and Teresa became really animated by passion.
Samantha and Teresa really wanted me to understand the left’s hateful and misinformed attitudes toward people like them. So they both added details to a story they thought could help me see the left’s spiteful ways. They told me about a “local girl,” who had gone to Trump’s Inaugural Ball for Gold Star families. Her brother had been killed in military service, and she had attended the ball with a friend, who also had a family member killed in the military. Prior to the ball, tragedy had struck this woman’s family once more, and her mother passed away. She wore her mother’s shawl to the ball. Yet, according to Samantha, a group of furious leftist protesters greeted this woman and her friend at the entrance to the ball. Teresa seethed, telling me the protesters “were throwing water bottles … spitting at them, just attacking and shoving them.” One of the protesters even wrote something offensive in permanent marker on her mother’s shawl.
While they had described this woman as someone from their community, it turned out they had learned about this not from word of mouth. As I probed, they told me they had heard this from Fox News. Still, it stung on a personal level. Here was the viciousness of the left on full display. And “liberal media” were turning a blind eye (this point too, I suspect, came from Fox News). Instead, liberal media were making conservatives look like the violent, heartless ones. Teresa pleaded with me to understand this. Echoing a talking point I would later encounter across multiple conservative news sites, Samantha contrasted what she claims was a media blackout on the woman’s story of abuse by protesters with the flood of coverage that had been devoted to a Muslim woman who said she had been attacked by Trump supporters. When the Muslim woman later retracted her story, according to Samantha, media had little interest.
In my following interviews, I would hear a lot more stories about leftists and liberals abusing conservatives or people who shared some trait associated with conservatives. Often, my interviewees would mix personal experiences of this sort of persecution — often interactions on social media — with stories from conservative media.
One exurban man, who recently lost his job, told me about how he felt driving into central Philadelphia and seeing a protester waving a “Fuck Republicans” sign. A woman told me about how liberal media had tried to poison her and her very conservative husband’s relationship with their gay son. They had nothing but love and acceptance for him, she said, but the media had tried to convince him that conservatives hate LGBTQ people. Many of my interviewees talked about how they tried to hide their conservatism at work and in other spaces for fear of reprisal. One woman told me she wouldn’t “wear anything conservative, say anything conservative” or put on a Trump bumper sticker because she feared she’d be attacked or her car would be vandalized. Almost everyone said they felt liberals had contempt for them. I heard all these fears expressed even before the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, which rapidly popularized Antifa as a boogeyman in conservative news stories.
Part of ethnographic interviewing entails trying to understand a group’s experiences through their own filters of collective feeling and meaning-making. For so many reasons — general polarization, a surge of subpar journalistic accounts of “Trump Country,” a sense that empathetic understanding itself has become weaponized — this can be a challenging exercise across political lines. A fairly common response I’ve received when I’ve talked about my interviews with left-leaning friends is that my interviewees must just be pretending to fear left bullying. A journalist recently told me this must be a feigned feeling that helps right-wingers rationalize their beliefs. That’s not an interpretation that I think works well to explain this. Given that we’re in a moment in which emotional experiences are too often treated as privileged windows on truth, I understand the impulse some have to question the “genuineness” of these feelings. But there’s more insight to be gained by delving into the processes that put this structure of conservative feeling in place and maintain it.
Liberal and left critics are well aware that conservatives often present themselves as victims. This goes much further back than Limbaugh. Corey Robin traces this trope all the way back to Edmund Burke bemoaning the French Revolutionaries treatment of Marie Antoinette. For all of the contemporary American right’s scolding of the left’s supposed politics of victimhood, the right itself has been a zealous promoter of its own woeful sense of embattlement. Typically non-conservative critics have had little time for the right’s cries of aggrievement. Sometimes these cries are brushed off as a mere rhetorical posturing — a move to pivot attention toward the right’s own supposedly hurt feelings while deflecting away from those who are really being crushed by power inequities. Conservatives, in this view, are just trying to work the refs. Their complaints are strategic ploys for favorable treatment from journalists, independents, or whoever else. This can certainly be the case, I think. But there’s more to probe. There are clues here about the social processes fueling conservative solidarity.
When critics take claims of conservative victimhood somewhat more seriously, it’s usually to diagnose a backlash psychology. This approach posits anti-leftism as a spontaneous impulse. When subordinated groups mobilize to challenge established social hierarchies — so this conception goes — a defensive rage swells up among members of groups whose privilege is being challenged. These groups see egalitarian movements as an affront to their status or material interests, so their resentment springs up like a reactionary reflex struck by a rubber mallet. As a handy heuristic for making sense of many battles over social power, this template offers something appealing. This indeed seems to be a reoccurring dynamic that arises when a group’s social dominance faces new forms of resistance. But like any simplified model, it can obscure and flatten multifaceted social phenomena.
Conservatives and their fellow travelers, here, despise lefties because their political programs threaten their power and privilege: end of story. But an alternative view asserts that backlash is not just a reflex, but a reaction that has to be mobilized. To borrow a phrase Judith Butler has invoked with a much different situation in mind, “rage can be crafted.” This is where Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and other agitator voices from the right come in. They don’t merely defend and naturalize privileges challenged by the left. They paint a striking portrait of the political world that transforms the nature of this conflict. In the image they offer, the left see their audiences’ whole identities stigmatized and reduced to irremediable flaws due to their conservative sympathies.
In contrast to the theory of fixed group interests, a broader understanding of political contest — one more in line with many strands of feminist and New Left analysis — suggests politics does cultural work. It’s not that pre-determined groups step into a battle with their interests already set in place outside the political arena. Emotional attachments to particular groups are not given but forged. Here, stories matter. So do the pathways by which certain stories circulate and pull groups of people together. These stories help us construct a sense of social belonging — figuring out who “our people” really are — and what this belonging entails in terms of whose pain we’ll share and what political goals and symbols we’ll fight for. Anti-leftists tell a story that lays out the possibilities of social belonging in the sharpest terms. For a deeper understanding of anti-leftism, we need to consider not just stories told by the left but the stories about the left told by its adversaries.
Interviewing conservative news consumers led me to one of the most sensitive nerves that runs through this genre: the portrayal of a demonic left, whose primary goal is to shame conservatives and their families.
This left wants to humiliate them for their racism, sexism, greed, and other deep failings of moral character. Limbaugh, Carlson, Hannity, and others link conservatism to an array of identities: white, non-urban, Christian, a midlevel manager, a country music fan, a soccer mom, any point of contact where they sense a possibility of connecting a subject to a common grievance — that they must endure the (supposed) animus and condescension of the left.
Rather than ignoring its critics, conservative media delights in them. The host gets to swoop in to their audiences’ defense, doing identity repair jobs to resurrect the honor of their in-group. This might happen through rationalizing policies, beliefs, or antics associated with conservatives. It sometimes means celebrating the general grit and good character of ordinary, hard-working conservatives. More than anything, it means discrediting and disparaging the threatening out-group.
Some of my interviewees have told me that they turn to conservative news with a special vigor when it’s been a bad day for their current helmsman, Donald Trump. A couple interviewees have told me they usually do not watch Sean Hannity’s show on Fox because they find him too predictably partisan. But Hannity helps them see the supposedly bad news differently. One woman told me that when Donald Trump’s infamous Access Hollywood recording was released in 2016, it hit her like a punch in the gut. She had to step away from all news for a couple days to recover. Then, she turned to conservative host Dennis Prager who “talked her off the ledge.” In her account, he helped her realize that the media was manipulating the recording to make it sound like Trump was bragging about grabbing women’s genitals without consent when, in fact, Trump had clearly said, “They let you do it.” She admitted she still found this “gross.” But Prager helped her work through a way of thinking that allowed her to preserve a sense that liberals, not Donald Trump, were the real slimeballs in this whole incident.
A basic pattern — agitate an identity threat, then defend and counterattack — plays out relentlessly in the news narratives of Limbaugh and his Advanced Anti-Leftist Studies protégés. This one-two punch is the favored gambit for conservative stars ranging from Jesse Watters to Ben Shapiro to Laura Ingraham. But perhaps no one has mastered the move as deftly today as Tucker Carlson. Those outside the orbit of conservative news have reason to think of Carlson as a hatemonger. He’s lost support even from former advertisers over concerns about hateful rhetoric. But it would be a mistake to think that his audience sees him in a similar light. Carlson’s fans who I’ve spoken with don’t even see him as their hatemonger. Rather, they see in him someone who reveals and stands up against the bullying tactics of the left.
To understand the power of Tucker Carlson’s narrative, imagine yourself in the position of someone — likely, though not necessarily, an older white man — who has some notion that liberals see many of his habits, dispositions, and understandings of the world as shameful. Carlson will stir the embers of that notion with a blowtorch. He can refract just about any issue to turn it into a matter of hostility directed toward members of his audience. Take climate change. You are watching Carlson introduces a segment with Bill Nye:
Well, Bill Nye the science guy is now aspiring to a new title; Bill Nye, the psycho-analyst guy. During a Facebook live event with Senator Bernie Sanders today, the mechanical engineer and TV personality said, “Skeptics of global warming suffer from the psychological delusion of cognitive dissonance.” This is a slight bump up from last year when he was open to the idea of imprisoning skeptics of global warming as war criminals. Is that the choice? Bellevue or Nuremberg?
Or, maybe you catch Carlson introduce a segment on protesters confronting Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her family:
Progressives have decided the Bill of Rights applies only to people who agree with them. Their views are protected by the First Amendment. Your views are hate speech. The Second Amendment covers their security detail. You can’t be trusted to have a gun at home. Now, the activist left is telling us that people who disagree with them no longer have freedom of movement or association. They can’t go to the movies or go to restaurants. If they dare leave their homes, they will be surrounded by mobs and threatened. It’s happening. […] White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her family were forced to leave a restaurant in Virginia because the owner didn’t like their politics. Sanders and her husband went home, but the rest of their family went to another restaurant. That wasn’t good enough. They had committed the sin of being related to someone who works at the White House.
So, progressives continued to harangue them as they tried to eat. This is happening in a lot of places to a lot of people.
As a regular viewer, you are quite familiar with this kind of news frame. He chuckled as he asked Nye, “Bellevue or Nuremberg?” You get this humor. It reveals a truth. Liberals and leftists hold themselves to be so high and mighty — looking down, frowning upon you for your supposed backwardness. But Carlson turns the tables on them. He shows they are guilty of the very crimes of intolerance and demonization that they accuse you of committing. In fact, what really drives them, you think, is not the lofty ideals they claim to espouse. It’s their contempt for people like you.
Rush Limbaugh’s first book, The Way Things Ought to Be (1992), begins with a section labeled ADVISORY. He cautions his readers, if you are “reading this book in the wrong public places,” you will be targeted by the “Liberal Elite” along with “Environmental Wackos, Feminazis, […] Militant Vegetarians,” and others. Once you are associated with him, by even so much as giving him consideration, Limbaugh warns, you will be vilified, harassed, and called a fascist and a fat slob. He proposes readers may want to put another cover over his image on the book — perhaps adorning it with a Bible cover. Yet, he laments readers might then be barred from indulging in it at a school or public place, as liberals have declared “God is unconstitutional.” So instead, Limbaugh exhorts his readers to be brave, step up in the face of intimidation, and let their freak flags fly.
As I read this preface recently, I couldn’t help but think about the accounts I’ve heard during interviews with conservative news consumers that hit upon a strikingly similar structure of feeling. These conversations often blend interviewees’ stories of experiencing or hearing about some form of intimidation by liberals or leftists with fears, fantasies, or jokes about how this might happen and be countered. So much of the conservative movement — or, more precisely, the conservative identity bloc — draws on such narratives of embattlement and defiance to understand their place in our contemporary milieu. Today the symbol imbued with liberating brazenness has taken on new form: a scarlet MAGA hat.
Anyone examining the appeals flowing through the conservative media sphere, as it has expanded since Limbaugh’s debut, should concede they include varying currents. Some of these defend hierarchy and offer people a way of imagining their identities directly tied up with social relations that put some people over others. Others contain fantasies of universal freedom and promises of self-respect. If critics only see right-wing media reflecting a longing for hierarchy, they will miss too much of the power of right-wing media’s mobilization strategies. But the right is able to do much of the work of mobilizing support for the politics of domination through means other than calling upon the most sadistic or imperious of human desires and impulses. There are other types of emotional attachments that can be activated, channeled, and conscripted into the service of supporting such political programs.
Anti-leftists like Rush Limbaugh and Tucker Carlson perform cultural work by conjuring the left as an identity threat, mainly to people who don’t encounter many left perspectives in their daily lives. This projected left is represented fundamentally as a negation of their dignity, their traditions, and their ways of life. The American left has seemed powerless to mount an effective counternarrative. The anti-left story is not an irresistible magic bullet. But the American left does not have the media infrastructure, nor enough storytellers fluent in local vernaculars, to offset the power of this tale in communities saturated with Limbaugh and Fox News.
Through the prism of much of conservative media, every election, every legislative battle, and every cultural controversy boils down to a question of “sides.” Which side represents the good people? Is it the liberals and leftists who put on such airs of superiority? Or is it the ordinary folks on team conservative? In this political imaginary, each side sees the other as moral monsters. And the other side’s penchant for dehumanization — turning people into monsters — is proof of just who they are.
Anthony Nadler is an associate professor of Media and Communication Studies at Ursinus College and Fellow at the Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. He is the author of Making the News Popular: Mobilizing U.S. News Audiences and co-editor with A. J. Bauer of News on the Right: Studying Conservative News Cultures.